Everything depends upon this. Understanding this book, more than any other in the Bible, entirely depends upon how we introduce it. Poetry is by its nature ambiguous, yet nearly everything about Song of Songs from its genre, authorship, narrative voices, setting, characters and plot line is also deliberately ambiguous. This is because Song of Songs is part of the Biblical wisdom literature, and through its evocative poems, it is pushing us to learn about, and even experience, the great human themes of love and sensuality. [Article]
Is this by Solomon?
The opening line is translated as: ‘Solomon’s Song of Songs’ in the NIV Bible, which like much else about this book is ambiguous. Is this book in the style or school of Solomon? Is it for Solomon or from Solomon? The themes of the book certainly do not accord with Solomon’s own experience of marital love (1 Kings 11) and although Solomon is mentioned seven times in the book, he is mentioned only in passing (1.1; 1.5; 3.7,9,11; 8.11,12 ) and he does not speak. Certainly the Song seems to be set in a time of prosperity and military security and many scholars believe it can be dated to around Solomon’s time. It is likely that Solomon is an inspiration, a foil for both the grandeur of love (3.6-11) and a warning of mistimed, illicit love (8.11-12). Like the book of Proverbs, Solomon is perhaps author of some of the songs in the collection rather than its sole author.
Is there a plot or structure to the poems?
This book is not only poetry it is at times deliberately obscure poetry. For example, the case endings on the words in Hebrew often go into the neuter so the reader is not sure if it is the man, woman or sometimes even the crowds who are speaking (incidentally, this is why in different translations the voices come in different places). There is also debate as to whether there is a structure or plot to the song. Is this the story of a working class girl trying to resist Solomon’s attentions? Is it a parable of love maturing as we age? Is it an allegory about God’s work in history? The approach I believe is wisest is that Song of Songs is like the Psalms, it is a collection of songs woven into one song. Literally, a song of songs, that are woven together by repeated phrases and themes whose aim is to make the reader understand or even experience something of the delights of love rather than to tell a polemical or allegorical story.
Is this an allegory?
For most of history this book has been interpreted as an allegory (a long metaphor1) about: God’s love for his people, or Christ’s relationship with the Church, or the Soul’s intimacy with God, or the Mind’s journey to self realisation, or even a political history of the world. Song of songs was the most discussed Biblical book amongst Christians of the middle ages as the search for a pure soul and intimacy with God was a coveted goal at that time. Obtaining the right allegorical understanding was understood as the key to unlocking the spiritual mysteries hidden in what appeared to be erotic poetry.
The strength of the allegorical approach was drawn from the fact the Bible teaches us God’s love for his people is akin to a passionate marriage. Jesus is the bridegroom, our marriages, at their best, are an imitation of Christ’s love for the Church (Ephesians 5) and we await the consummation of history when the bride of the lamb, the new Jerusalem, the perfection of God’s people, will descend from heaven to a restored earth (Revelation 21).
The weakness in the allegorical approach is threefold. First, there is nothing in Song of Solomon to suggest it is meant to be an allegory. Second, the allegories developed in the middle ages contradict each other in their meaning and application. Third, allegory consciously contradicts the Biblical text and distorts the Biblical analogy of marriage and the theology of the people of God in order to deny Songs is first of all a book about human erotic desire and this desire can be good.
There have been two reasons for avoiding the Biblical theme of erotic desire that receives its most positive focus in Song of Songs. First is the long influence of Greek ideas (especially Plato) which often saw the world and its desires as having been created corrupt and wrong and that the goal of humanity is to raise ourselves above this corruption to seek purer spiritual ideals. However, this contradicts Hebrew thought which tells us in Genesis that the world, including its fertility and desires was made good but then was corrupted by the fall of humanity. The revelation given to the Hebrews was more nuanced than the thinking of the great Greek philosophers in the revelation saw evil does not exist as a quantity on its own, it is not creative, evil can only be the corruption of things that were made good. The resurrection of Jesus teaches us further that the world’s physical goodness will be restored and healed on the last day. In other words, we were built good as soul’s with bodies for eternity, we were not built as disembodied spirits temporarily trapped by our unruly flesh.
The second reason for avoiding the erotic desire focused in Song of Songs has been the Biblical teaching that as we corrupt our image, we do so powerfully in the area of our sexual longings (eg. John 5, 1 Corinthians 6). As the Song itself says, love is a powerful, even dangerous, force that needs to be handled carefully (2.7). Of course, the cost of avoiding discussion of these things in the church is that we teach by default that human erotic love is either outright wrong or we imply that there is no good way to express erotic desire.2 And yet, the Lord has given us Song of Songs to encourage us to seek and maintain the full experience of love in our intimate relationships and, as I will explain below, to learn more of God’s love for his people. As John Calvin was reported to have said: “[He] … did not think it improper to associate the marriage bed celebration with the deepest divine manifestation of love.”3
How then does this book work in the Bible?
We know most accurately what others are feeling by analogy with our own experience. We understand things we have not experienced by writers drawing an analogy with things we have experienced.4 For example we understand grief in others most deeply once we have experienced grief ourselves. We understand love and even heart break once we have drunk the giddying wine (1.2) of love ourselves and perhaps suffered its disappointments. We therefore understand more of the intimacy and passions of the Triune God through our own experience of love and jealousy. Since we are made in the image of God, the best part of our passions are but an image of His.
The near obsessional love of Song of Songs is a human reflection of the greater passion of God we read about in passages from Deuteronomy, Hosea, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah or Revelation.
Jesus said that he is the fulfilment of the scriptures, which includes this Song about love. How do we know what love is? The apostle John answers that question by writing: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. (1 John 3.16). In Jesus and his resurrection we finally meet the love of God that is a seal stronger than death, that overpowers even the grave and burns with the inextinguishable flame of the Lord (8.6,7).
Song of Songs also reinforces Biblical teaching about the significance of women, the health of cultures, the ideal for intimate relationships and how single people may care for their own longings for intimacy.
Women are given powerful voices in the Old Testament. From the fatal conversation of Eve to the Matriarchs, Prophetesses like Miriam (Moses’ sister), the long line of godly women like Ruth or political leaders like Esther we observe women playing key roles in the Bible story. In the wisdom books the wisdom of God is personified as a woman who is pleading for people to love her rather than foolishness. In Song of Songs the woman is love itself. She is the dominant voice of the Song. She is her own woman (free) and offers herself to the lover she chooses, she initiates most of the love seeking in the poems, she is an equal of her lover.
Song of Songs is set in an ideal time that is free of war and famine. The imagery of gardens, cultivated fields and wilderness is a play on Genesis 2 where, before the fall, human beings were naked and unashamed in a safe place of plenty. In Song of Songs we see the intimate relationship that is defaced in the curses of Genesis 3 (Genesis 3.16b) restored to the mutuality, trust, desire, commitment and vulnerability poetically portrayed in Genesis 2. In other words, there is in the grace of genuine human intimacy, the potential for some reminder of what it is like to truly be the unfallen image of God. Thus there is the capacity for healing or great harm in how we handle human intimacy. To apply this insight more broadly, how women are treated is a litmus test of how close to Eden / Obedience / accepting of God’s grace and will a relationship or even a culture is. Let me provide two Biblical examples of this.
In Genesis we see the patriarchal institution of polygamy arise as the corruption of human beings is entrenched culturally. We know that God’s original plan was for an exclusive marriage between equals which is why some are puzzled that Genesis does not openly condemn the polygamy of Abraham or Jacob et al. But, actually, the text does condemn this practise in the show, but not tell, style of Biblical narrative. When we look at the details of the home lives of the Biblical patriarchs who practised polygamy – how did it work out for them? Dysfunctional homes and families with tragic long-term consequences is the consequence of not honouring women in the way God originally intended.
In Judges we begin with the nation of Israel in close obedience to God, the opening chapters not only describe their successful entrance into Canaan but also make a point of describing the business dealings of Caleb’s daughters. These women are independent minded people who are acting decisively to honour God and build up their people. By the end of the book of Judges women are again highlighted but now the nation is far from God, rejecting His grace they are instead at war with themselves and not their enemies, their women have been subjected to murder, rape and forced marriages. In the show, but not, tell world of Biblical narrative the lesson is plain. You are far from the Law God gave you, you are far from any approximation to Eden and the test is you have failed women.
Song of Songs is a reminder that a culture or a relationship that wants to draw closer to the values of love and mutuality found in Genesis 2 is a culture or relationship that needs to know the grace of the living God. It is also a powerful warning that the desire for human intimacy is at heart a yearning to regain Eden. To awaken love out of time, (2.7, 3.5, 8.4) when it cannot or should not please is to risk harming ourselves at the most profound level possible.
Are the couple married?
This question can only arise in a culture like ours where we are obsessed with pleasure to the point that we worship it and where we have mostly separated conception from lovemaking and commitment. We are taught in our culture that marriage is a passionless institution and that the best intimacy is held outside of the confines of marriage in love making with minimal restrictions. This is wrong not only Biblically but also empirically as studies summarised in books such as Premarital sex in America5 have shown.
The freedom and creativity expressed in Song of Songs is possible precisely because the couple are in a binding covenant relationship with each other. He calls the woman his sister and his bride (4.9,12), she rejoices that my lover is mine and I am his (2.16), that her lover is her friend and king and haven of belonging (2.4). Part of what attracts them to each other is the implication that their love making will be fertile (produce children 7.13, 8.5). They describe their covenant as a seal on their hearts and arms (their will and strength) that is stronger than death, that burns with the flame of God (8.6-7). It is their commitment to each other that makes their desire an unending, even an unresolved, perpetual song of desire (8.14).
To us this may seem incredible language to describe marriage but perhaps that only demonstrates how poor our understanding of marriage is compared to ancient Hebrew expectations.6
1. One example of an allegory is Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew 13. Jesus explains how the seed stands for the message about the Kingdom he announces (v18) and the different soils are different responses in people to that message. In an allegory, one thing stands for another. A famous allegory from Song of Songs is that the woman’s breasts in Songs 1:13 represent the Old and the New Covenants. The sachet of myrrh lying between them represents Christ who unites the Covenants. This is true theology but arrived at by forcing an allegory over the plain meaning of the text.
2. As the influential Augustine of Hippo taught about concupiscence in works such as Confessions.
3. W.E. Phipps, “The Plight of the Song of Songs” JAAR 42 (1972): p96
4. Examples of analogy occur in Revelation where John is trying to describe things beyond our ordinary experience using ideas from our common life. In Revelation 4.6 there is ‘what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal’. In 4.3 the one on the throne had ‘the appearance of jasper and ruby and a rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne.’
5. Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker Premarital Sex in America – how young Americans meet, mate and think about marrying. Oxford University Press, 2011.
6. The evidence suggests that these songs were sung at ancient Hebrew weddings. Tremper Longman III “Song of Songs” (NICOT, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Cambridge 2002) p 38.